Mark Napier’s Venus 2.0
February 5, 2010
“Now that I’m done’ I find the artwork disturbing. It freaks me out. Maybe I’ll do landscapes for a while to detox.” — Mark Napier
Artist Mark Napier, well-known for the net classics Shredder, Riot, and Digital Landfill, recently exhibited his latest work Venus 2.0 at the DAM Gallery in Berlin. A sort of portrait via data collection Venus 2.0 uses a software program to cross the web and collect various images of the American television star Pamela Anderson. These images are then broken up, sorted by body parts put back together and — as this inventory of fragments cycles onscreen, a leg, a leg another leg — the progressive offset of each rendering of Anderson’s head, arms, and torso makes her reconstructed figure twist, turn and jerk like a puppet. It’s odd looking. Even her creator is a little afraid of her:
“I have to say’ if I ever meet Pamela Anderson in real life I think I’ll completely freak out and run away. I don’t think I could have a conversation with the woman after this project â€¦ I started with a sympathetic view of the actual Pamela Anderson. She is part of the spectacle of sexuality in contemporary media. She’s caught in that ‘desiring machine’ as much as any other human’ probably even more so. She has surgically modified her body in order to have greater leverage in the media. Does this put her in control? I think not.”
Napier’s project doesn’t answer or intend to answer the question of who is in control either, but it plays with the possibilities. Although I wasn’t able to see the portrait at its exhibition. I did track down part of the series Pam Standing at a private location here in New York. Napier has also posted video excerpts of the work online. Unfortunately, these still images and clips are a bit too static to really do the piece justice. If you get to see the real thing and if you look for a while, you’ll see what I mean. Venus 2.0 is an amazing jigsaw puzzle, a deceptive surface of shifting layers – part painting and part search result.
The effect is translucent, lyrical, mathematic and creepy. When I implied that it must have taken an awful lot of precision and calculation to get something like this to come together, Napier insisted that focusing on the technology behind Venus 2.0, its algorithm, or even on the unique materiality of networked art in general, is a way of missing the point. The way he relates to Venus 2.0 is through the painter’s hand. What counts is not the data feed, but who were are, what we want and how we behave:
“The artwork is a riff on sexuality as an elaborate hoax played by a precocious molecule that builds insanely complex sculptures out of protein, aka, meat puppets or more simply, ‘us’. These animate shells follow a script that’s written and refined over the past half billion years. And that script is in a nutshell: 1) survive 2) reproduce 3) goto #1. So sexual attraction is the carrot to DNA’s stick. Attraction is part of the machine. In art history this appears as the tradition of Venus. And more recently: Duchamp’s ‘Bride’. Magritte’s ‘Assasin’. Warhol’s ‘Marilyn’. The focus of digital art is still the human being. Don’t be distracted by the gadgets.”
Hi-tech or not, new media artists are by now well-practiced in the technique of unraveling a familiar image to expose an occluded, yet equally valid identity. In Distorted Barbie, Napier relied on a repeated process of digital degradation to blur both the literal and conceptual fiction of the Mattel franchise. Another early project stolen, took the female body apart, presenting attraction as database. Years later these kind of approaches, pixel manipulations and indexing without comment, as well as parsing and remixing have become a sort of standard operating procedure in new media. So much so that as technique becomes more well-known and more accessible, it can be hard to tell one work from another or one artist from the next. With this in mind’ it seems important to note that in the case of Venus 2.0 it is not so much a choice of subject or an organizational scheme that guarantees the final effect, but the manner in which Napier investigates the image and the ways in which Napier illustrates and manipulates both the visual elements of portraiture and his relationship to the figure involved.
Napier builds and destructs, assembles and tears apart, but in doing so tries his best to keep us focused on these activities as processes. At times Pam’s contortions are allowed to expose the wireframe which allegedly guides her construction and at certain key points on the interface, there is also a steady stream of vector coordinates to embody the idea of data. But Napier makes less of technology than another artist might by effacing what some would tend to elaborate on, in order to draw our attention elsewhere – usually towards evolution, gradation and the ways in which images evolve, and by extension the ideas that inspire those images which reflect how unstable elements are, even treacherous:
“I work at probabilities: what is the likelihood that the figure will be totally opaque? How often does it get murky and undefined? How often should I let that happen and for how long? How often does the figure jump? How long till the figure lands and stands up again? How much time is spent in chaotic motion and how much in stillness? How often does something completely messy happen? Like the figure gets tangled up in a ball that has no structure. I don’t know how the piece will play out each minute, but I know what kind of situations will arise in the piece. I can plan those likelihood, and then let the piece play and see what it does.”
So, like the woman who inspired her. Pam Standing is beautiful, but more unsettling. What makes Pamela Anderson the most frequently mentioned woman on the Internet? Why do we mention her? What is it we want when we give our gaze to celebrity? What has celebrity done to attract us? Whatever your answers, what Napier privileges in his response is not a fixed portrait of a star, but a cloud of iteration that produces its own image and reproduces that image, jangled, confused and full of surprises. A portrait whose finest moments are accidental and whose design is an accumulation of fragments that tense and dissolve, floating like clouds one instant and then sinking like lead the next. This is where the imagination takes a step forward and Napier the artist or Napier the geek becomes Napier the puppetmaster, a networked Dr. Coppelious:
“My favorite moment with the PAM series was when I finally got all the math to work so that the body part images displayed correctly and the correct side of the body showed at the right time and the stick figure suddenly started to look like a ‘real’ puppet that was starting to come alive in the golem-esque way that I thought it could when I was sketching out the idea. I had that Dr. Frankenstein moment: ‘She’s aliiiiiiiiiive!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ which was really the point all along, to create this virtual golem that is clearly not alive at all and yet teases us all with this false appearance of life. Venus 2.0.”
Until the layers of arms, legs, breasts and hips collapse in on themselves and Pam is back where she started, a manipulated beauty unable to escape presentation as a collaged monstrosity.
Note: Mark Napier has been creating network art since 1995. One of the earliest artists to deal thematically and formally with the Internet, Napier has been commissioned to create net art by the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum and the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art. His work has appeared at the Centre Pompidou in Paris’ P.S.1 New York’ the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis’ Ars Electronica in Linz’ The Kitchen’ Kunstlerhaus Vienna’ ZKM Karlsruhe’ Transmediale’ iMAL Brussels’ Eyebeam’ the Princeton Art Museum’ la Villette’ Paris’ and at the DAM Gallery in Berlin.